The subthalamic nucleus-globus pallidus network plays a central role in basal ganglia function and dysfunction. To determine whether the relationship between activity in this network and the principal afferent of the basal ganglia, the cortex, is altered in a model of Parkinson's disease, we recorded unit activity in the subthalamic nucleus-globus pallidus network together with cortical electroencephalogram in control and 6-hydroxydopamine-lesioned rats under urethane anaesthesia. Subthalamic nucleus neurones in control and 6-hydroxydopamine-lesioned animals exhibited low-frequency oscillatory activity, which was tightly correlated with cortical slow-wave activity (approximately 1 Hz). The principal effect of dopamine depletion was that subthalamic nucleus neurones discharged more intensely (233% of control) and globus pallidus neurones developed low-frequency oscillatory firing patterns, without changes in mean firing rate. Ipsilateral cortical ablation largely abolished low-frequency oscillatory activity in the subthalamic nucleus and globus pallidus. These data suggest that abnormal low-frequency oscillatory activity in the subthalamic nucleus-globus pallidus network in the dopamine-depleted state is generated by the inappropriate processing of rhythmic cortical input. A component (15-20%) of the network still oscillated following cortical ablation in 6-hydroxydopamine-lesioned animals, implying that intrinsic properties may also pattern activity when dopamine levels are reduced. The response of the network to global activation was altered by 6-hydroxydopamine lesions. Subthalamic nucleus neurones were excited to a greater extent than in control animals and the majority of globus pallidus neurones were inhibited, in contrast to the excitation elicited in control animals. Inhibitory responses of globus pallidus neurones were abolished by cortical ablation, suggesting that the indirect pathway is augmented abnormally during activation of the dopamine-depleted brain. Taken together, these results demonstrate that both the rate and pattern of activity of subthalamic nucleus and globus pallidus neurones are altered profoundly by chronic dopamine depletion. Furthermore, the relative contribution of rate and pattern to aberrant information coding is intimately related to the state of activation of the cerebral cortex.